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Governor Herbert says lawmakers went too far with budget cuts

SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that lawmakers went too far when they chopped 7 percent from the upcoming state budget.

"Why not do 10 percent? They did education by some calculations at 11 percent. Why not do 15, 20 (percent), then say, 'Look at that gap, we're going to come halfway,'" Herbert told reporters.

He defended his $11.9 billion budget during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Channel 7, repeatedly pointing out it contains no reductions in current spending levels.

"They didn't need to cut," Herbert said.

He said he wants to work with lawmakers to come up with an alternative to their budgeting process, which starts with a preliminary base budget passed at the beginning of the session.

"I'd like to eliminate some of the anxiety that's caused by the current process and see if there's a better way to do it," the governor said, describing the current process as "a little bit messy. It's a little bit frustrating."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said the governor can have his opinion, but legislators like the way they do the budget.

“We’ve found a little fluff in government, some programs that can be trimmed back a little bit,” Jenkins said.

Told that Herbert wondered why lawmakers didn't cut as much as 20 percent in the base budget, Jenkins said, “maybe we will next year.”

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said his constituents have told him they appreciate the Legislature’s budget process because unlike the governor’s, it is done in the open and the public may participate.

“They don't get to do that when the governor puts out his budget,” he said.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she doesn't believe the process needs to be changed and that she will defend it "to the very end."

Lawmakers are in the process of adding back some of the cuts now that an additional $47 million is projected to come in on top of the $215 million in revenue growth already anticipated in the budget year beginning July 1.

But the biggest difference between the governor and the GOP majority in the Legislature is whether to make up for all of the $313 million so-called structural imbalance this session.

That's why lawmakers cut 7 percent across the board in their preliminary base budget passed at the start of the session. Herbert said that gap could be closed by just a third for now.

His proposal for raising $130 million in one-time money to help balance the budget, however, was formally opposed in the closed-door House Republican caucus Thursday.

The governor's proposal, making self-employed Utahns pay income taxes quarterly rather than annually, would accelerate tax collections in the next budget year.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Odgen, said the GOP sees the measure as a burden to the self-employed. "We believe it's about a $10-15 milion cost to small business," Dee said.

Lockhart said the tax change just isn't necessary. "We believe we can balance the budget effectively without it," the speaker said.

But the House Republicans did not take a position on another tax proposal that's under discussion, restoring the state sales tax on food. A Senate committee recently passed SB270, which would also lower the general sales tax rate to offset the increase on food.

Herbert said he was not proposing to put the sales tax back on food. "That's not part of my agenda. We can do it without that," he said of balancing the budget.

However, the governor said he would support a bill that would restore the tax on food as long as it also lowered the general sales tax rate by the same amount.

Still, Herbert stopped short of saying he would veto an alternative proposal that would delay lowering the general sales tax rate to raise some additional tax revenues.

"You don't do things in a vacuum. It depends on all the parts of the budget. I'm going to analyze everything together before I decide what I'm going to veto and what I'm going to sign," he said. "So all things are on the table."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy